Seemingly, a growing number of North Americans are making the request that there be “no service” upon their death. In my ongoing research into how we have dealt with death historically and how different people groups respond today, I’ve come across an interesting artifact.
George Washington, the “Father” of our nation, made a similar request–and it was summarily ignored by his family, community and nation. Washington wrote, “It is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.” In my experience, that simple “stroke of a pen” will not so easily dissuade communities of mourners, who, from time immemorial have gone to great effort to do what we need to do with our dead.
Ignoring the expressed “wishes” of the deceased, Washington’s family allowed the Masonic Lodge to coordinate the service of burial at Mt. Vernon. Though hastily arranged, apparently it was quite an affair, described a few days later by Rev. James Muir:
“In the long and lofty portico, where oft the hero walked in all his glory, now lay the shrouded corpse…. There those who paid the last sad honors to the benefactor of his country took an impressive, a farewell view.
“Three general discharges of infantry, the cavalry, and eleven pieces of artillery, which lined the banks of the Potomac, back of the vault, paid the last tribute to the entombed Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States…The sun was now setting” (Papers, 2011).
In recent years, the funerals of the famous and not-so-famous have been broadcast by television and internet, allowing a vast community of mourners opportunity to quasi-participate in the services. Almost everyone has touched more people than he or she realizes, witnessed by the manifold times the funeral for a homeless person is attended by many dozens, if not several hundred, mourners. An estimated 2.5 billion people watched the 1997 funeral for Princess Diana (BBC, 2008), a global television audience estimated at more than three times the approximately 750 million who watched her famous wedding to Prince Charles in 1981 (Robinson, 1997).
Telecasting funerals of the famouse was not the norm, of course, when Washington died in 1799. In an attempt to mourn their own sense of loss, communities across the land staged “mock funerals,” foreshadowing the dozen separate funeral events for President Lincoln as his body was transported by train from Washington, DC to Springfiled, Illinois after his assassination more than six decades later (Trostel, 2002).
One of the largest mock funerals for President Washington seems to have been the one two weeks after his death in Philadelphia, the city that had served as the nation’s temporary capital while Washington, DC was built. People came from all around to observe “the spendid and somber march, accompanied by the sounding of muffled drums (as the funeral cortege) proceeded through Philsadelphia a little past noon.
“A riderless horse, escorted by two marines wearing black scarves, preceded the clergy. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported that the horse carried an empty saddle, holsters, pistols, and boots reversed in the stirrups. The horse also was ‘trimmed with black–the head festooned with elegant black and white feathers, the American Eagle displayed in a rose upon the breast, and in a feather upon the head. In the midst of the procession, pallbearers carried an empty casket” (Hawn, 2007).
What relevance for us is a dead president’s funeral 212 years ago? This relic of history, in part serves to remind us that the dead should only be partially allowed to dictate the terms of their own funerals. As I have said elsewhere (Hoy, 2007), when faced with death from earliest times and around the world, we humans utilize significant symbols, gather with our communities, ritualize our actions, connect to our heritage, and transition the dead from “here to there.” In my experience, no one’s “final wishes” should be allowed to trump those basic needs of the living.
And if one declares his “corpse…be interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration,” he must understand the reality that a grieving community may go to great extremes to respectfully ignore his wishes.
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). (2008). On This Day, 6 September. Accessed from http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/6/newsid_2502000/2502307.stm
Hawn, J. (2007, September). The funeral of George Washington. Mall Times: National Mall & Memorial Parks Newspaper, National Parks Service, p. 1. Accessed from www.nps.gov/mall/parknews/upload/MallTimes1.pdf
Hoy, W.G. (2007). Road to Emmaus: Pastoral care with the dying and bereaved. Dallas, TX: Compass Press.
Papers of George Washington. (2011). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Alderman Library. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/project/exhibit/mourning/funeral.html
Robinson, E. (1997 September 1). From sheltered life to palace life, to a life of her own. The Washington Post, pp. A21.
Trostel, S. (2002) The Lincoln funeral train: The Final journey and national funeral for Abraham Lincoln. Fletcher, OH: Com-Tech Publishing.